Roman Thoughts, Ideas, and Practices of Pregnancy

Roman Thoughts, Ideas, and Practices of Pregnancy

By Alisha Adams

Tiresias, Vol.1 (2012)

Introduction: Roman law maintained that the purpose of marriage was the creation of children as heirs. This duty was so important that there exist records of marriages dissolving due to lack of offspring; love matches were set aside for the purpose of producing an heir with another spouse. That Romans and even their predecessors saw successful childbirth as important is attested by the survival of hundreds of womb shaped votive offerings from Vulci. This evidence, found in a healing sanctuary, suggests a cultural anxiety regarding conception and pregnancy. Inscriptions also serve as evidence that the creation of children was of prime importance. For example, many inscriptions of prayers have been found on the temple of Asclepius that thank the god for children. Given the pressure placed on Roman men and women to continue their blood lines, their cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the production of offspring are particularly interesting for classical historians. To fully understand Roman thoughts about reproduction, it is important to consider the full cycle of pregnancy, from thoughts on fertility, menstruation, conception, pregnancy, through to childbirth.

In Roman medicine, physicians or philosophers involved in a certain practise would often record their thoughts on them as well as the applications of their trade. These writings would be kept for the teaching of future generations. However, the realm of pregnancy was largely a woman’s domain, usually relegated to midwives. Unfortunately, it seems that most of those practises were either not recorded or not as well preserved since we have no known female literary work on pregnancy from the Roman Republic or Empire. The most important literary sources we possess were written by males, though male physicians were traditionally not involved in matters of pregnancy. The most widely known texts are by Hippocrates, a Greek writer during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, Pliny the Elder and Soranus, both writing during the 1st century CE. Soranus in particular is a major source for gynecological information during the 1st century CE in the Roman Empire. His work is exhaustive and comprehensive, incorporating his predecessors’ ideas, experiences, and lessons into a work that covers all aspects of Roman pregnancy.

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